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ISSUE 119 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/28/2006

"Thank You for Smoking" a bit of a drag

By Stephanie Soucheray
Variety Editor

Friday, April 28, 2006

In Jason Reitman's first feature film, “Thank You for Smoking,” the silver-scaled underbelly of America's political culture is exposed in all its wretched (and hilarious) glory. Nick Naylor, the fantastically underused Aaron Eckhart, plays the worst sort of politically incorrect villain in the late 20th-century: a lobbyist who defends Big Tobacco.

“Thank You for Smoking” is a satire based on Christopher Buckley's novel of the same name. The movie, like the book, takes shots at all aspects of contemporary society and rips them to shreds.

Nick has a problem. The Birkenstock-wearing, maple syrup-loving Democratic senator from Vermont, played by William H. Macy, wants to pass a law that would place skull-and-bones “toxic” stickers on all cigarettes sold in the United States. When Big Tobacco executives hear of this proposal, they put Nick on the job to bolster nicotine sales.

Having long eschewed morals, Nick lives by the principle that it does not matter if what you're doing is right: It only matters that you can prove the other guy wrong.

Thus, Nick goes on talk shows and has the courage to say that secondhand smoke does not kill to a 15-year-old boy with cancer and the audacity to tell his son's sixth grade class that smoking should “at least be considered” as a choice they can make.

The audience should be disgusted with Nick – he is even disgusted with himself at times – but Eckhart skillfully plays Nick as a man who is simply very good at his profession. How could we not root for him?

Though Nick is a fantastic character, and the acting and dialogue in “Thank You for Smoking” is sharp and pointed all around, the movie is at its best when it sticks to one story line, which it rarely does.

Instead, the audience follows Nick to Hollywood where he plans to bolster tobacco sales by getting Catherine Zeta-Jones and Brad Pitt to smoke in a sci-fi blockbuster. Then we meet Heather Holloway (a boring pre-TomKat Katie Holmes), a journalist who will go to great lengths to get her scoop on Big Tobacco.

Finally, there is a subplot involving Nick's kidnapping by Target Market-like anti-smoking terrorists who almost kill him with nicotine patches.

The plot is all a bit too frenetic and jumpy on screen, but the cameos by some fine actors and comedians make the movie worth the discombobulated plot. A wonderfully insincere and annoying Adam Brody (Seth Cohen from “The O.C.”) is great as a Hollywood assistant who offers Nick's 11-year-old son a Red Bull and Robert Duvall shines as a mint julep-loving Southern tobacco god.

In the end, “Thank You for Smoking” becomes a twisted take on “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as Nick goes to Senate hearings to bat for Big Tobacco, brilliantly pointing out that the syrup or cheddar cheese of Vermont is just as deadly as tobacco to Americans. Just like a cigarette addict, the audience is left wanting another hit, this time more fully realized, after the credits roll.

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